Nebraska has failed to match the expectations for the program established by the Tom Osborne era for 16 years now with their last conference championship coming in 1999. No one expected that to change in year one of the Mike Riley era and indeed it did not as the Huskers went 6-7 and only made it to a bowl game by virtue of the strong academic standing of the roster that put them at the top of the list for bowl eligible five win teams.
However, what did need to change for the program under Riley was the recruiting strategy for building rosters that could win Big 10 championships and the new regime did have a chance to get that important mission on track with this first full Mike Riley class.
Because they are not sitting in a talent hotbed, Nebraska's recruiting strategy has to be creative and wide reaching in order to bring in enough great players and Riley was known for that style of roster-building at Oregon State where he was at a much greater deficit in trying to compete with the other programs in his conference.
Here's how he's began to approach the challenge of leveraging Nebraska's huge fan base and major resources to overcome a total lack of a natural recruiting base that can supply blue-chip players to match.
Step 1: Embrace the home state
Nebraska announced the addition of nine walk-ons to their program along with their 2016 signing day class of 21 scholarship players. This has always been an important part of Nebraska's path to building great football teams as the Osborne-era teams regularly benefitted from a heavy emphasis on walk ons and an expectation within the state that home grown players would default to walking on at Nebraska. Since many of these players also grew up learning Osborne's offensive schemes at their high schools this had a major effect on roster depth.
Only two of the scholarship recruits in this 2016 class were from Nebraska but seven of the walk-ons hail from the state while Iowa and Colorado also each also contributed a preferred walk-on. At Oregon State, Riley had a lot of success with his walk-on program and this is an important advantage for a school like Nebraska to make the most of.
No other school in the country is going to be an attractive place for a fringe-D1 athlete from Nebraska to attend without a scholarship offer to pay his way. Players like eight-man star Tanner Hass live to have a chance to play football at Nebraska and there's always going to be a few players in that pool who turn out to be more than good practice fodder but real gems that can be difference makers on Saturdays.
Step 2: Cast a wide net
The 2016 Nebraska class consists of recruits from 14 different states across the Union. Only six of those players came from the holy trinity of Texas, California, and Florida this year (four from Cali, two from Florida, zero from Texas) and instead Riley relied on his old Pac-12 stomping grounds from which he pulled seven players while embracing his new midwestern surroundings from which he drew 10 players (eight if you don't count Missouri as "midwestern").
Interestingly enough, it took going into eight different midwestern states to get those 10 players, and the Nebraska staff really earned their frequent flyer points moving about the region to bring in these players.
This was impressively done as the staff managed to secure the top-ranked players in the states of Iowa (OL John Raridon) and South Dakota (OL Matt Farniok) while adding seven other players ranked in their home state's top 10. Nebraska will always have pull in the surrounding region and it's a good sign for Riley's program that it hasn't been lost.
The ability to recruit nationally and pluck top players out of multiple sites is a difficult task but one that Nebraska's coaching staffs have to be able to do in order to build championship teams. It appears as though Riley and his staff have been able to translate their old Pac-12 connections into a pipeline from California of key contributors while also finding effectiveness in recruiting Big 10 country. They even landed a player from the fertile bayou of Louisiana.
If they can find some good players from this walk-on program and perhaps add Texas back into that mix that might just do the trick.
Step 3: Lay down the foundation
In terms of specific players, Nebraska had a ton of needs to fill in order to be able to execute Riley's strategy down the line when his own recruits are the upperclassmen leading the way for the Huskers.
The most important recruit in this class is the early-enrolling QB Patrick O'Brien, a four-star prospect from California who was an elite 11 finalist.
O'Brien is a typical pro-style talent, he's tall enough to see clearly and make throws from the pocket but he also has some quickness to move around and throw on the run as needed. He's got a big arm to make the throws outside the hash marks if and when Nebraska is able to get some WRs isolated on corners while opposing defenses load the box to stop the run.
It's always hard to project how these QB recruits will respond to the challenges of evading a college pass rush, beating the blitz, deciphering more advanced coverages, or throwing with enough accuracy to beat athletic DBs, but O'Brien has a lot of tools on his belt that should make him an exciting prospect for Nebraska fans.
The next big challenge for the future Husker teams is overhauling the OL so as to allow inside zone to become the calling card for the offense, which usually means loading up on some bigger bodies and will require getting players with a lot of punch and power. Here are the four players they signed:
There's some good size in this group and prize recruit John Raridon's ability to quickly get under opponents and drive them off the ball will be key for future Husker OL in getting movement on Riley's favorite scheme in coming seasons.
The next big infrastructural piece that Riley is certainly hoping that he addressed in this class is the TE position, that make or break spot for pro-style offenses as they seek run/pass balance and the ability to out-leverage defenses.
Towards that end, perhaps the biggest signing in this class may prove to be Coloradan Jack Stoll, a 6'5" 225 pound 3-star prospect that Nebraska beat Texas and Wisconsin for last summer.
Stoll has the most prized traits you can find in a TE, namely excellent hands, size, and athleticism to run routes and be a match-up nightmare for the linebackers and safeties that try to cover him. He'll have to maintain his above average speed and agility at a heavier weight than 225 and adjust to blocking much bigger defenders but all of his best traits are skills and features that will translate to the college game.
Finally, Nebraska needs athletes at the skill positions on both offense and defense. Riley has made a living out of turning athletes into weapons on offense by employing sweeps and screens to get them the ball and teaching his receivers to run a full route tree as a means of making them tough to defend rather than having them rely on pure speed or size.
Nebraska's defensive scheme, a standard cover 4 approach, requires that they find at least one great cover corner and a free safety that can play over a slot and help erase mistakes. Only great athletes need apply for these roles.
Riley's top rated signee was DB Lamar Jackson, a four-star safety prospect out of California with tremendous size and range (6'3' 209 and true 4.6 speed) who could eventually fit the bill at free safety. He also added athletes like J.D. Spielman, who has just absurd power and athleticism packed into his small frame and is just the type of player that Riley has fashioned into a 1k yard receiver in the past.
All in all it would appear that Riley is on track to finding a formula that will leverage all of Nebraska's advantages with midwestern kids that grow up respecting Husker football tradition and in-state kids that will walk on to be a part of the program while also bringing the savvy to recruit states like California that can produce badly needed athleticism and talent to the winning mix. They finished ranked 24th in the country and 5th in the Big 10 but with the way this class fits Riley's vision and with Nebraska's place in the weaker western division, I'd say there's a chance they finish no. 1 in the conference at some point in the Riley regime.